Remy Low is a scholarly teaching fellow in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. He is interested in questions of identity and diversity, with a particular focus on the experiences of young people. When he is not buried in books and papers concerning these issues, Remy also enjoys reading poetry, wandering or skating down urban streets, visiting art galleries, attending gigs, and attempting to write gonzo commentaries on arcane topics as homage to his literary idol – Hunter S. Thompson.
BigQfilms contacted Remy after reading a powerful and moving article (read here) he had written about the late Bob Gould, owner of Gould’s book arcade in Newtown. BigQfilms decided to pursue Remy and ask him about his thoughts on race, his personal experience and views on the topic as a scholarly fellow and intellectual. This post marries academic knowledge and personal interpretation of race and to say it is enlightening is a mere understatement.
“It was imprinted on my birth certificate and inscribed in my body from the first moments of life. I carried it with me in my earliest social interactions with peers as we played together in the side streets, well as with adults on the main streets. If Martin Heidegger is right to suggest that dwelling is a type of thinking, then to be born in Malaysia in the twilight of the twentieth century was also to think race. This is not to say that people thought about it systematically, let alone critically. To dwell also lends itself to a type of forgetting – or more precisely an unreflective thinking – that is borne by familiarity. It’s thinking through it without thinking about it, as when you are able to find your way to the bathroom of your house in the middle of the night, somehow negotiating the darkness of the corridors and your sleepy state. Race was like this for me. It was there in schools, in government institutions, in homes, and at the marketplace. In chatter it mingled with the warm, humid air and settled to form a sticky layer on the skin like sweat. No form of washing or air-conditioning would stave off the inevitability of sweating in that climate, just as one’s race carried a sense of necessity and destiny. This was in the air I breathed and the landscape I dwelt in those early years.
In Black Skin White Mask, the Martinique-born psychiatrist and writer Frantz Fanon recounts the daily experiences of being marked out as “black” upon arrival in France: “I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world”, he declares, “and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.” When I read those words for the first time as an eighteen year-old, I remember feeling a sinking sense of recognition that drew me back to my pre-teens, when I first arrived in Australia. Race worked very differently here. It was certainly not formally institutionalised or officially used as a means of partitioning populations as had been the case in Malaysia, but the stillness on the surface of things only betrayed a deep undercurrent. Fanon’s words haunted me when I read them because the memory of being called “Asian” or “mongrel” (a term of insult denoting a person of mixed or ambiguous racial identification) on the first day of school here lay festering, like a wound still seeping from an infection that never properly healed. My teenage years were spent surfing, listening to punk rock and hip hop, reading up on poetry and politics, chasing fleeting romances, and playing Australian-rules football – that strange hybrid sport born from the marriage of Gaelic football and expansive cricket grounds. These were all dimensions of my being, each passionately held as a part of my identity. Yet what Fanon describes as the “crushing objecthood” of being reduced to a race was an experience that was not uncommon throughout those years. I may have been many things, but it often returned to the way I looked and how I fit or didn’t fit into that box. In short, I often felt like an object, a thing.
I have no doubt that my experiences with race contributed to my eventual scholarly interest in questions of identity and diversity. As I reflect on the moments recounted above, as well as on other people’s experiences encountered through books, films and in conversation, I have come to understand that race is, like all other dwellings, built by humans. We all look, sound, smell, walk and talk differently. And in our most private moments, we feel deeply that we are unique and wish to be taken as such by others. Yet the need to categorise people – according to this or that shade of skin, this or that shape of nose, this or that type of hair – appears to be an all too human impulse. From there, certain behavioural traits and “natural” dispositions are extrapolated, and before long negative associations that “they” exhibit are contrasted with “our” virtuous selves. A cursory reading of human history will uncover the cost of acting on this way of thinking.
When a dwelling is no longer hospitable for living, a few options present themselves: to renovate the dwelling to make it more hospitable; to build a new dwelling; to move elsewhere to find a more suitable dwelling; or to insist against all evidence that the dwelling is fine and continue living in it. Sadly, the latter option is taken by far too many people when it comes to thinking about race. As long as they do, countless tragedies and injustices – on a large scale as well as in everyday life – will continue to unfold. Perhaps it’s high time we had a look at this dwelling called race and ask ourselves: Does this way of thinking befit human beings in all their diversity and complexity?”
Thank you for reading. Please share your thoughts and this post.